WELCOME BACK to Debate Club, the printed equivalent of two sea lions fighting over a herring head. Actually, three sea lions—for this long-awaited return of Debate Club, we undertook a Canadian-doubles, two-on-one-style debate over the serious shredding and splendorous scissor-kicks that are Van Halen, either the greatest band of all time or the silliest, depending on who you ask.
Defending Eddie, Alex, Diamond Dave, and young Wolfgang are seasoned Halen experts (and party animals) Aris Hunter Wales and Mark Lore. Taking the opposing side is poindexter Ned Lannamann, whose love is rotten to the core. Van Halen plays at Amphitheater Northwest on Tuesday, July 7.
ARIS: I'm so ready for this argument. I've had some experience defending Van Halen. A while back, I was in Safeway with my girlfriend, who's now my wife—we'd been dating about six months. And the opening riff of "Panama" came on, and I just said, "Yeah!" And she said, "Ugghh." I said, "Wait, you don't like Van Halen?" She said, "They're terrible." I was completely aghast, and then she said, "They didn't bring anything new to the table." Which is untrue on so many levels.
MARK: Did you tell her that they influenced a whole decade of music?
ARIS: Several decades. Yeah, I argued a little bit. She still doesn't like 'em.
NED: I hate Van Halen, but I have to disagree with the statement that they didn't bring anything new to the table. Because sure, they did. It's just that the thing they brought to the table was shitty, super-fast-picking, dive-bomb-effects, whammy-bar, saturated-distortion guitar playing that sounds like a balloon squealing. My biggest issue with them is that they had so many poor imitators. That might be the thing I hate most about them. It's the Red Hot Chili Peppers syndrome—maybe the original band didn't commit that many crimes, but all the bands in their wake did all these dreadful things.
ARIS: But you could say that about anything, though. You always have to start at the beginning.
MARK: You listen to Van Halen, and they're miles above anything that came afterward. Their originality, their quirkiness—because they are a weird band, with all of David Lee Roth's shtick, bringing a vaudeville quality to a hard-rock sound.
NED: Van Halen are the patient zero for hair metal—that 1980s poppy kind of metal that's loud but not really heavy or edgy.
ARIS: Yeah, it's more about flash.
NED: And it led to that era of those cheesy bands with their winking-at-the-camera, "Cherry Pie" videos. Bands like Nirvana had to be invented to eradicate them from the earth. That's Van Halen's legacy.
ARIS: Wait, so Van Halen is guilty of all the less-than-great bands that they influenced? That's wrong. How can that be their crime? They played amazing music and people went, "Oh my god, I want to sound just like them." And then all those bands did a subpar job because Van Halen is amazing.
NED: Well, let's look at that formula that everybody wanted to imitate. With the first Van Halen album from 1978, it's all there from the beginning. They didn't add anything new to that until Eddie started playing keyboards on 1984.
MARK: No, that's wrong. They actually had some synth as early as Fair Warning . And you get into Diver Down  and they have all those weird, short instrumental things that they threw in there. They're weirder than you'd expect.
ARIS: And the reason that formula was so fully formed on the first album is because they honed their chops at clubs in LA playing covers. They started playing popular songs at the time, just to get people through the door.
NED: That first album has the bad hangover of a bar band playing cover songs. Their first single was a cover of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me," the original of which is a paragon of a song, one of the most iconic pieces of music of all time.
MARK: See? That's a "pro" for Van Halen right there, picking one of the greatest songs for their first single.
NED: No, that's a "con," for picking something that's basically perfect in its original incarnation, and doing a louder, lousier version of it to introduce themselves to the world. There's no subtlety to it, no art to it. And they preceded it with a shitty guitar solo that's basically just Eddie masturbating for two minutes.
ARIS: You're talking about "Eruption," and you're 100 percent wrong about it.
MARK: You could argue that Van Halen's "You Really Got Me" is better known than the Kinks', and it's possibly an even better version.
NED: You could? That is very disturbing to me. If that's true, it's a terrible travesty and Van Halen should burn in hell because of it.
ARIS: Think what music was like when "Eruption" came out. In 1978, it literally was an eruption as far as guitar style and skill were concerned. What was popular back then? Fleetwood Mac, Boston, disco... punk wasn't really a big thing in America.
MARK: If I heard Van Halen in 1978, I'd be like, "What the fuck planet is this from?" Even listening to it today, I'm blown away.
NED: But why? What's so amazing about it? What are the elements of the thing that Van Halen does? Let's rewind back to the Kinks, who more or less invented the idea of a distorted guitar riff, and then you go forward to Jimi Hendrix, who played guitar in ways no one had dreamed of. By the time you get to Eddie Van Halen, it's all about technique as opposed to musical originality. It's all about making things bigger, louder, flashier—not necessarily better.
MARK: You also had the New Wave of British Heavy Metal going on, and I'd say Van Halen might have had more in common with that than anything in America, as far as the speed and precision of the playing goes. Which, if you're into metal, is an important component.
ARIS: Eddie was hugely influential from the beginning. Pretty early on, not long into their career, he was awarded Guitar Player of the Year in Guitar Player magazine.
NED: That's a red flag right there.
NED: Because it's a fucking award from a fucking magazine.
ARIS: Well, he kept winning it, and after five years in a row they had to change the rules because of him.
NED: So Eddie Van Halen was the FDR of Guitar Player.
ARIS: FDR was a great president!
NED: Okay, fine. But for a supposedly original band, I've always been frustrated by the amount of time Van Halen devotes to cover songs. There's a bunch on the first album, then they did another Kinks song later on, and they did "Dancing in the Street" and the Roy Orbison one.
ARIS: That's just them going back to their original game.
MARK: I think what they thought was, "We've got a guitar player that can essentially take any song and make it entirely his own—make it a completely different song." And they ran with that.
ARIS: The opening riff to "(Oh) Pretty Woman" is super killer. Every time I hear it, I have to calm myself down because I know that "Pretty Woman" is coming and the rest of the song isn't as good. It bums me out just a little.
NED: So why couldn't they take that opening riff and make an amazing new song out of it? Why can't they take it to the next level and push it over the edge with something crazy and original—why do they have to go back to covering oldies?
MARK: I think they just went with what felt good. They're a feel-good band.
ARIS: That's just how they did it. They played pop songs, big Top 40 songs, blown out to huge proportions to please the crowd.
NED: Isn't that pandering?
ARIS: How? By making people happy? No. This was the era of cocaine and super-egomania. They wanted to top everybody and do the biggest, best version of a song.
MARK: By 1978, that Kinks song was a distant memory.
NED: [cries a little]
ARIS: That first album isn't even their best. Women and Children First and Fair Warning are the best ones. They really punch.
MARK: To me, Women and Children First is their "heavy metal" album; it's fast and loud. Their first album was probably too melodic to be considered heavy metal. And Fair Warning was a dark record for a reason. I think Eddie was going through some shit.
ARIS: And there's more to Van Halen than just Eddie. Alex Van Halen is one of the most underrated drummers of all time. Just listen to "Hot for Teacher."
NED: Okay, I will concede that that's a great song. If it comes on the radio, you don't change the station.
ARIS: When I was a kid I used to take my dad's tape and our big, brick-sized Sony Walkman and put on my denim jacket and walk up and down the driveway over and over listening to "Hot for Teacher." I probably didn't even know what all the words meant. But yeah, I loved that song from a very, very young age.
NED: So, have either of your guys either been hot for teacher?
ARIS: We're both married to teachers! [laughter all around]
NED: Van Halen seeps in deep! Shit. I can't argue with that.
MARK: Michael Anthony [the bassist] was another huge factor, too.
NED: See, this is another reason I don't like them: They kicked Michael Anthony out of the band, the guy who had been there since day one. He was a great showman—just Google "Michael Anthony drunk bass solo"—and he did all of the backing vocals. If you watch the live videos, he is giving it his all. And he was unceremoniously dumped so that Eddie's son Wolfgang could take over.
ARIS: The only thing that I can say about that is that at least they kept it in the family.
NED: But wasn't Michael Anthony considered family at that point?
MARK: We could get into band politics, but let's talk about the opening riff of "Unchained" instead.
NED: That sounds like loser talk. Poor Michael Anthony, kicked to the curb.
ARIS: Well, is Chickenfoot any better?
NED: Honestly, I don't know.
MARK: Let's talk about Diamond Dave. David Lee Roth was a great showman. And he brought an aesthetic to the music, all the weird vaudeville stuff and the razzle-dazzle and the physical athletic stuff...
NED: Hmm... is that a net positive?
MARK: In the context of Van Halen being a hard-rock band, yes. They were ready-made for arenas, and Dave's lunatic personality made them a little more interesting. And fucking fun!
NED: But if you need to have someone doing scissor kicks every two minutes in order to keep people entertained, doesn't that say something about the rest of the show?
MARK: Yeah, it says gimme a time machine to go back in time and see Van Halen back in the day because they were awesome! You go to a rock show now, and what does a singer do? Looks down at their shoes.
ARIS: When was the last time you saw high-flyin' split jumps at a rock show? It's all about the party! Put on some Technicolor stretch pants and do some roundhouse kicks! Reach for the sky, man!
NED: I love how David Lee Roth became a trained EMT after he was already one of the biggest rock stars in the world. That's ridiculous! But he's always been kind of an insane rock star. He fit in really well during the '80s—he's sort of like Huey Lewis.
ARIS: Huh? What are you talking about?
NED: He just had that healthy head-counselor look. He didn't look have that Keith Richards vibe, like he'd been lying under the tour bus all day shooting heroin. He looked like he'd been out playing volleyball.
MARK: And having a lot of sex.
NED: So we've covered Dave, but we haven't talked about Sammy Hagar.
ARIS: Oh, I don't think we need to talk about that, do we?
NED: For this debate, yes we do. The whole catalog counts. That's another thing about Van Halen's defenders. They have these made-up rules—like, "No, you can't talk about Van Hagar. It's not the same band." It is the same band. It's the same brand name on the album cover. It all goes against their grade-point average.
MARK: Well, it's been years since I've listened to them, but as I remember, 5150 and OU812 both have two or three good songs on them. I'd almost pick those albums over 1984.
ARIS: I'm not militantly anti-Hagar, but why would you want to listen to those when you could listen to the older stuff?
NED: For people our age, Van Hagar was what we knew of Halen at a certain point. I don't remember hearing about the backlash against Hagar as a kid, but I guess it's become kind of a defining characteristic of the band's fanbase. The complaint that they weren't as good as they used to be.
ARIS: Maybe so, but the new album, A Different Kind of Truth, is great!
NED: How is that even possible?
MARK: Well, you gotta do the disclaimer. More than a handful of tracks are songs that they dug out from old demos. But who gives a fuck? It's good. It's not even really new anymore, but it's a good album.
ARIS: Yeah, it's really good. Dave obviously doesn't have the range that he used to, and the lyrics are very silly—he's a middle-aged dude trying to write songs about chicks. But it's waaay better than it has any business being. Just considering how awful the Gary Cherone/Van Halen III stuff was. It's amazing.
MARK: What's so great about the new one is that I listened to it with different ears, because I hadn't heard Eddie's style of guitar playing for so long. It's this mutant sound that's fresh and new.
NED: So, in 2015, is a Van Halen show something you'd recommend people go see? With Wolfgang on bass and with the rest of the band being however old they are.... By now, Eddie's imitators have outpaced him. There are dudes who can play faster and rip harder. So why is Eddie still good? If it's all about his technique, why is he worth listening to, now that he's been bested? Or is that not the point?
MARK: The little subtle things he does. Eddie is more diverse than just finger tapping.
ARIS: He's a lot more nuanced than people give him credit for.
MARK: I would say enter a 2015 Van Halen show at your own risk. But I think it's going to be great to see Eddie Van Halen play guitar.
NED: The real question is, will he wear a shirt?
NED: Well, that's good. But Van Halen's music just has this show-off quality that I can't get past. It's all "look at me, look at me," and playing fast and flashy and doing jump kicks and guitar solos. They're not interested in making people feel good.
MARK: What?! They're all about making people feel good! They come from the days of big arena rock, when it was all about drugs and booze and partying.
NED: Don't you need to have something for the morning after?
MARK: Well, I agree that a diet of nothing but Van Halen is probably unhealthy.
NED: It would be like eating nothing but Doritos.
MARK: Right, you'd probably die. But if there were a bag of Doritos on the table, we'd all be eating them right now. Van Halen's sole purpose is fun. They don't care if it's campy, they don't care if it's cheesy, they don't care if it's empty calories. They just want you to have fun. It's music made for teenagers. And guys who married teachers.
ARIS: There's no downer subject matter, no political stuff, nothing like that. Just jump on the train and enjoy the ride, man! Van Halen's just trying to bring everybody into the party.